Some disability applicants, especially older ones, can be approved under Social Security's "grid rules" even if they might be able to do some physically or mentally undemanding work. This is particularly true for claimants (applicants) without high school diplomas and for those who can't read or write. Here's how the grid rules work.
When you apply for disability, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first look to see if your medical condition qualifies for automatic approval because it "meets a listing."
If your condition doesn't meet the complicated listing requirements needed for automatic approval (most don't), Social Security will look at several factors to see whether you fit into a disabled category in its "grid rules," or "medical-vocational guidelines." Applicants whose educational background makes it hard for them to be retrained may be able to qualify for disability through a "medical-vocational allowance."
The grids are a series of tables that tell you whether you're "disabled" or "not disabled" based on a number of details, including the highest grade you attended school and whether you can read and write. The other considerations used in the grids are:
Your RFC is the physical level of work (for instance, medium, light, or sedentary) that you can do on a full-time basis, despite your medical condition.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) divides education levels into the following categories, which are explained more fully below:
To determine your education level, the SSA considers not only how far you went in school, but factors like how long ago you completed your education, your hobbies, test scores, and other activities.
If you have an education that allows you to work at a skilled job, say as an associate or bachelor's degree, you'll be expected to go out and learn or be trained for a new job, unless your medical condition prevents you from doing even the easiest jobs available.
Let's look at how Social Security defines these educational levels.
The SSA will consider you "illiterate" if you can't read or write simple messages, even if you can sign your name. People who can't read or write usually have little or no education.
Not being able to read or write isn't a disability on its own, but the inability to read or write is a factor that Social Security considers in some disability applications. When applicants with severe physical impairments apply for disability, Social Security will look at whether they can read or write when deciding whether there are any jobs they can do.
But Social Security only counts the inability to read or write as a factor only for applicants who are at least 45 years old. Social Security believes that younger people have an easier time training for a new job, and that they can find jobs working with things (rather than data or people). Jobs that don't require working with data, computers, or people don't always require the ability to read or write.
Social Security uses the grid rules, explained above, to determine whether applicants over 45 are disabled, but being unable to read or write doesn't guarantee an approval of benefits. Here are some examples of how Social Security determines whether the inability to read or write helps someone get disability benefits.
If you didn't attend school past the 6th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as "marginal." Social Security believes that a person with only a marginal education has the reasoning, math, and language skills to do only simple, unskilled jobs.
The SSA considers a marginal education to be a limiting factor, especially for claimants 60 and older. Here are some examples of the grid rules for someone with a marginal education.
If you're unsure whether your marginal education will help your claim, you should speak to an experienced disability attorney in your area.
If your last year of school was in the 7th to the 11th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as "limited." Social Security believes that a person with a limited education has reasoning, math, and language skills, but doesn't have the educational qualifications to do the more difficult tasks needed for skilled and semi-skilled jobs. For this reason, disability applicants with a limited education are generally expected to do only unskilled work.
Having a limited education doesn't guarantee an approval of benefits, but you have a good chance of being found disabled under the grid rules if:
Here are some examples where claimants were denied or approved in light of their limited education.
Social Security judges and examiners can consider the inability to speak English on a case-by-case basis when deciding what jobs a claimant can retrain for—for instance, a claimant in most areas of the U.S. without good English skills probably couldn't do the job of store manager, because that job requires communicating with employees and the public.
But after April 2020, claimants who are unable to read, write, or speak in English no longer get any help from the grid rules.
In the past, claimants who were age 45-49 whose doctors limited them to sedentary work could be granted disability benefits if they:
Claimants who were age 50-54 whose doctors limited them to light work could be granted disability benefits if they:
But Social Security's grid rules no longer recognize the inability to communicate in English as part of the grid rules. This rule change applies to new applications filed on and after April 2020 and to any pending claims.
Here's how the following workers who can't speak English, and can no longer do their jobs, are affected by this rule change:
If you didn't graduate from high school, you'll need to provide the SSA with proof of the last year of school that you attended. To get this information, contact the school district you last attended. It can also be helpful to give the SSA the results of any tests you took, evidence that you were in a special education program, or any other proof of your education level.
This was an overview of how Social Security classifies education levels and how the grid rules treat these education levels, but we have several other articles that will help you better understand how the grids work and how to understand the other factors used in the grids. You can learn more by reading our articles on:
Updated June 14, 2022